As competition increases, the gap between Asian salons and the rest of the industry is actually getting smaller. To keep their English-speaking clientele, Asian nail technicians are making efforts to learn the language and expand their salon services, while non-Asian salons are discovering the value of quick service and client convenience.
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two part series. Last month, “Asian Influence” covered the phenomenon of Asian salons and its effect on the nail industry today.
Walking into Happy Nails in Tustin, Calif., clients enter a large open room dominated by row upon row of pink-and-white workstations. At each workstation there are jars and bottles labeled with simple, generic terms: “oil” and “lotion.” Most also have a coffee cup where nail files and cuticle pushers soak in sanitizing solution.
There are the occasional photos of smiling children taped up on display. Each worker also displays a manicurist or cosmetologist license from the California State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology. The walls are bare except for two TVs; right now they’re tuned to the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” The only other color in the room comes from a few silk plants scattered about.
Twenty nail technicians are busily doing nails—some soaking, some drilling, some polishing. The room hums with the soft sound of several women’s voices underlined by voices on the TV. Several technicians respond to the bell on the door, looking up with a smile while their fingers continue to fly. A few clients also crane around to look, but most are absorbed in Oprah, their thoughts, or the technician’s work. Every nail technician is Vietnamese and every client in the salon is Caucasian.
One has to ask: If everything that is said about Asian salons is true, why are they so often booked to capacity and why do clients continue to patronize their businesses? Gather a group of nail professionals at a show in any part of the country and they’ll name a handful of reasons that Asian salons are hurting the “legitimate” nail profession” with questionable products, poor sanitation, damage to nails, unlicensed technicians, and no client communication.
Mary Larkin, who is getting her bi-weekly fill at Happy Nails today, offers several reasons she’s been a happy patron: “They always do a good job and they’re very friendly. I usually make an appointment so I can see the same person, but I know I can just come in if I need to because they take walk-ins. Linda, my technician, speaks English and she always talks to me. Last time I was in she showed me pictures of her family; and she knows all about mine. I live just down the street and this salon is also near where I do most of my shopping.”
Larkin says she can afford to pay more than the $14 it costs her to get her nails done at Happy Nails, but she doesn’t want to. “I’d probably be willing to pay $2-$3 more, but I wouldn’t get my nails done if it cost me more than that. It just wouldn’t be worth it to me.”
And Larkin knows what kind of service and salon atmosphere she can get for a higher price. She used to get her nails done at a beautiful luxury salon in the same area, where she paid $35-$55 (depending on which technician did her nails) for a fill. The nail workstations are strategically located within the salon to create privacy for clients. The nail technicians participate in ongoing continuing education with a major product manufacturer, and they use only the highest-quality products for which they pay a premium. Larkin says the service she got at the luxury salon was top-rate and her nails were beautiful, but she does not put a value on the difference in quality. “I usually had to have an appointment and the fill took one hour. At Happy Nails it takes just 45 minutes, which includes 10 minutes for my polish to dry,” she explains. Larkin says that she intends to stay put at Happy Nails.
Trudy Oliver-Cuohgi, a nail technician at Fingertips, Inc., in Richmond, Va., says she felt the effect of having new Asian-owned salons in her neighborhood. She decided to ask clients of hers who had patronized Asian salons what attracted them.
“Number one was convenience,” she says, with clients citing mall locations and the fact that the salons were open seven days a week. “Clients said that their nails seemed to stay on longer without lifting or bending. And, of course, they like that the services cost less.”
Although many of her clients left her to try discount salons, many returned. She also asked those why they returned to her. Oliver-Cuohgi says they disliked the “impersonal treatment resulting from the language barrier, the technician’s lack of concern over broken skin or the pain caused by the drill, assembly-line production, and the fact that so many of the workers wore facial masks.”
Ironically, her clients also cited “hidden expenses” as a reason for leaving. “The low cost for the fill only applies to short, square nails,” she explains. Oval or square nails of average length cost about the same at Oliver-Cuoghi’s salon as they did at the Asian salon. “A $10 fill ends up costing more than $10,” explains Trang Nguyen, owner of four Hollywood Nails salons in Longwood, Fla. Many times the low-cost fill is just a starting point for pricing, and salons will add on charges for shortening nails, polishing, or top coat.
Are the Horror Stories True?
Holly Bonello, a nail technician at Nails in Motion in Falmouth, Va., says of Asian salons: “I know cases of families living in their salons. Many times they use each other’s licenses. Their sanitation practices leave much to be desired, using the same drills bits and files without being sanitizing them…I have many clients who come to me to ‘fix’ problems caused by unsafe practices at these shops. I’ve seen grooves that reach all the way to the nail bed from someone misusing a nail drill.”
Elaine Ho-Wan, a salon consultant who specializes in Vietnamese salons, says that, although rare are unfair stereotypes about Asian salons, many of the “horror stories” are true.
“The [Vietnamese people] have a negative history with government which was often in place to hurt them, not help them. I think these new businesses owners are not willing to take time, to be patient, and to go through the necessary steps to get the right licenses and the right equipment before they get started. They want to start working right away. They don’t want to deal with what they see as government interference.” Ho-Wan explains that it isn’t a casualness about legalities or a disregard for the American system behind it; it’s simply a need to quickly start working, earning money, and supporting one’s family.
She feels many Asian nail technicians and salons don’t follow, and in some cases don’t bother to learn, key state board regulations, including such important issues as sanitation. As for licensing, Ho-Wan says, “Many Asian owners hire technicians who have a license in a state, but not in the one where they want to work. Still, they allow them to work without specific state licensing, but they don’t want to pay the fees until they see the people’s work.”
Although no one from the state board in Arizona, or any other state for that matter, will speak on the record about how much Asian salons have contributed to the crackdown in reciprocity and licensing fraud, licensing is a hot topic among the state boards.
Asian salon professionals are blamed for a host of other industry ills, as well, some fairly, some not. “Their sanitation practices are very bad,” says Pauline Herr, director and instructor at Bonsoir World Nail Academy in Temple, Ariz. “But I believe they are trying to improve.” Herr says a Vietnamese salon chain hired her just last year to critique its salon’s practices and help them make necessary improvements. “They are trying everything to improve their sanitation. I went from salon to salon, had meetings with the owners and nail technicians, made up accident report forms, and educated them on how to clean the salon and use sanitation systems.”
Ho-Wan says that besides the cultural obstacles, the lack of communication vehicles available to Asian salons is also to blame for lack of conformity among them. The quality of cosmetology education today knows no ethnic boundaries; it is a frustration faced by everyone in the business.
Although there has been much published in the trade press about the ban on methyl methacrylate (MMA) in nail products, admittedly it has probably not reached the Asian salon population. Considering that use of MMA was once legal and accepted in the nail industry, and that it is still sold today despite the ban, it’s understandable that there would be confusion in the Asian community about whether or not it is legal.
“I don’t think they understand the difference between methyl methacrylate and ethyl methacrylate [the alternative component to MM